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"This is just the first quarter, my friend," says Andrea Sloneker, employing a decidedly male term for the Big Game that is the day after Thanksgiving at the Mall of America.
Sloneker and her seven teammates look weary. It is 3:30 p.m., and, though they have bagged many trophies--from Victoria's Secret, Nordstrom's, Old Navy--they have miles of aisles to go before they sleep. They have been up since 4:00 a.m., having started their pre-game ritual at the Monticello Kmart, which was followed by a hit on Wal-Mart and some caroling outside Famous Dave's. At the moment, they are taking a breather between Bloomingdale's and the MOA rotunda, which is flanked by two King Kong-sized Christmas trees decorated with chandelier-sized ornaments.
Other players from other teams rush past, but compared to this crew, all the rest are amateurs. "We've been doing this for 27 years," says Lee Sloneker, the 53-year-old matriarch from Monticello, who is geared up for her rumble in the jungle with a leopard-skin jacket and a black leather hat. She and her brood started doing the post-Thanksgiving storming of shops and malls before it became trendy, before it had the name "Black Friday," even before this shrine to super-sized everything was built.
"It used to be us with our mother and grandmother, now we bring our children," says Lee's 46-year-old sister Lavon Beseman.
"We're a well-oiled machine," says Andrea Sloneker, Lee's 24-year-old daughter. "Before people had cell phones, we had walkie-talkies."
"This morning, we had all green lights to Wal-Mart. We were blessed," says Laurie Cunningham, Lee's 49-year-old sister.
The first shop-till-you-top-last-year outing for the Sloneker-Cunningham-Beseman team took place in Alexandria in the '70s. The sisters and sisters-in-law foisted the kids on their husbands, and had so much fun they turned it into an annual event. Now there are rules: All players must be high school graduates, everyone must pay her own way ("everyone has to buy their own stuff," insists Lee), and the team gathers together after the Thanksgiving meal the night before to go over the sales, ads, and coupons.
"It's called 'The Hunting Trip,'" says Laurie Cunningham, a day-care provider from Fergus Falls. "We bag our limit. Our husbands are hunters and softball players. We tell them we can identify with the excitement, the planning, the need for plenty of ammunition. They totally understand."
"Usually the whole trip revolves around that first store," says Andrea Sloneker, an office manager in Edina. "Like, one year we had to get Care Bears at Wal-Mart. Or like last year, I needed to get woodshop tools for my dad. We have to get that first kill in the morning, then the rest of the afternoon is laid out."
"This year I had to get the little baby Cabbage Patch dolls for $10 at Wal-Mart for my day-care kids," says Laurie Cunningham. "That was the first kill. We were at Wal-Mart at five o'clock this morning."
Energy costs might be picking people's pockets; the real estate market might be tanking. But according to Julie Hansen, from the Mall of America's marketing office, "we're having our best time since 9/11." Hansen can't (or won't) say how many shoppers are in the mall the day after Thanksgiving ("We don't give out exact numbers of how many people visit...on any given day," she says). But it's a safe bet that there are tens of thousands of souls--maybe hundreds of thousands--filling the parking terraces.
Everyone has her own reason for being here. There's Jim Kline, a retired Weather Service employee from Bemidji, who stands over the rail at the rotunda watching a Don Shelby-hosted benefit concert. Kline talks about the "state of euphoria" and "escape" and "tradition" of holiday shopping. There's Raye Burkhalter, a mom from north Minneapolis who started her day at 4:30 a.m. at the Target near Knollwood Mall and who stands outside the Scene On TV shop and says, "I'm happy when I'm purchasing things."
There's a twentysomething couple from Burnsville, Michael Horton and Karyo Kayser, who appear to have been blindsided by Black Friday. "Never heard of it before," says Kayser. "I come here once a week and get coffee and hang out." She looks around at the bustling masses who have invaded her little mall. "We honestly didn't know what was going on today," says Horton. "We showed up and saw all these cops and traffic and said, 'What's going on today? Is there a terrible concert or something?'"
There's Taylor Fredrickson, a 17-year-old from Albertville, who is decked out in new wave gear and maintains a "sociologist's attitude." She explains, "We like the chaos, and we like being amidst everyone and watching from a spectator's viewpoint. We've seen some crazy shit, all these people buying shit they don't need."
There are Darla Maransdorf and Nathan Jasperson from Georgia and Wisconsin, respectively--fiancés who met online and who browse at Victoria's Secret before heading off to lunch at Hooters, the logo of which embosses both their T-shirts. There's Diana Rayburn and her 13-year-old daughter Melanie, from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. "I want to show my friends the mall," says Melanie, while snapping random photos of shops. "Most of them have never been. It's like heaven for a teen girl here."
There's Teri Wallace, a self-described "introvert" and education researcher from Owatonna who sits in the Starbucks reading A Million Little Pieces--the swaggering memoir of a raging drug abuser--while waiting for her daughter and watching the parade of families: sippy cup-strewn strollers, blank-faced husbands, packs of wired teenage girls, folks who look like they just climbed down from a deer stand or came straight from Minicon, and various other shop-shocked faces.
But there is no one quite like the Sloneker-Beseman-Cunningham clan, who, despite their plans to shop until well past midnight, temper their capitalistic urges with some good old-fashioned socialism.
"People are too intense on this day, so we make sure we do one random act of kindness. We're the happy people," says Andrea Sloneker. "Like today, at Marshall Field's, these women were frantically looking for bracelets, and we helped search for them.
"One year we helped clean up the glove department at Kohl's and organized it all for them, so those people could get off work and get home," says Lavon Beseman.
"One year at the hotel, we all did synchronized swimming in the pool afterwards. That was quite a sight," says Lee Sloneker. "When we'd go back to the hotel, we'd usually have a van just packed full. And you know those luggage carts they have? We'd have to take three of them. They'd be stacked way high, all the way to the top, and people would just be looking at us like, 'Who are these people? What are they doing?'"
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.